Jazz and Physics

Posted in History, Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 26, 2016 by telescoper

No time for a full post today, so I’ll just share this intriguing picture I found on the interwebs of two great figures from very different fields: Jazz trumpet legend Louis Armstrong and pioneering quantum physicist, Niels Bohr.


When I first saw this I assumed it had been photoshopped, but I’m reliably informed that the picture is genuine and that it was taken in Copenhagen in 1959. Other than that I know nothing of the circumstances in which it was taken. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows the full story!

The Price of Jackson

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 25, 2016 by telescoper

The chance conjunction on this blog of a post about the death of Professor  J.D. Jackson with another about the greed of academic publishers caught the attention of one Ian Jackson (son of the aforementioned Professor) and prompted him to forward me some correspondence between his father and the publisher of the famous textbook, Classical Electrodynamics (published by John Wiley & Sons).

I won’t copy it all here, but here is an excerpt:

The Letter of Agreement of 1996 stipulates that Wiley should not increase the net price more than 5% in any two year period with the author’s permission. A month or so ago I found out from the physics Editor that the US net price was $87, a big jump from the last number I knew. By knowing that the list price is closely 1.3 times the net, I could look at my records of the single copy list price on Wiley’s web site to find that they had increased the price by 5% at least once and probably twice beyond what was permitted by our agreement. I wrote a strong letter, citing chapter and verse about their obvious violation.

John David Jackson was obviously a generous man: the royalties for this book were divided among his four children (including my correspondent Ian). He goes on to add in a letter to all four of them, after the publishers agreed to reduce the list price:

Sorry to be keeping your royalties in check, but I was thinking of the poor students who are paying 1.3 x $82 = $106.60.

They do keep the book for the rest of their lives, so perhaps it is an OK investment.

I don’t remember how much I paid for my copy, but I don’t begrudge the amount because it’s an excellent book. You should always remember, however, that the author of a textbook typically only gets a small percentage (usually~10% ) of the net receipts.

The correspondence sent by Ian includes this hand-drawn graph by the late Professor Jackson:


It seems Professor Jackson shared my (low) opinion of academic publishers!

For the record, my textbook on Cosmology (co-authored with Francesco Lucchin) was also published by Wiley. A representative of the publisher explained to me that their pricing strategy involved trying to keep the revenue constant in time, so that as sales went down the price went up. My book is now very much out of date so I can understand why the sales have fallen off, but I find it hard to believe that the same is true of an enduring classic. Professor Jackson seems to have agreed; he described Wiley’s pricing strategy as “gouging”…

In Memoriam – HMS Hood

Posted in History on May 24, 2016 by telescoper

Today is a solemn anniversary which surprisingly hasn’t been marked in the media. On this day 75 years ago, i.e. 24th May 1941, the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Hood was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck in the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Of a ship’s complement of 1418 only three survived the sinking of HMS Hood; it was one of the greatest maritime disasters of the Second World War. I’m not one for dwelling excessively on the past, but I think it’s a shame this event has not been better remembered. We owe a lot to people like the 1415 who gave their lives that day, so I’m glad I remembered in time to pay my respects.


From Sappho to Babbage

Posted in Astrohype, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 24, 2016 by telescoper

The English mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed and built the first programmable calculating machine, wrote to the (then) young poet Tennyson, whose poem The Vision of Sin he had recently read:


I like to think Babbage was having a laugh with Tennyson here, rather than expressing a view that poetry should be taken so literally, but you never know..

Anyway, I was reminded of the above letter by the much-hyped recent story of the alleged astronomical “dating” of this ancient poem (actually just a fragment) by Sappho:

Tonight I’ve watched
the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

It is a trivial piece of astronomical work to decuded that if the “Pleiades” does indeed refer to the constellation and “the night is now half-gone” means sometime around midnight, then the scene described in the fragment happened, if it happened at all, between January and March. However, as an excellent rebuttal piece by Darin Hayton points out, the assumptions needed to arrive at a specific date are all questionable.

More important, poetry is not and never has been intended for such superficial interpretation.  That goes for modern works, but is even more true for ancient verse. Who knows what the imagery and allusions in the text would have meant to an audience when it was composed, over 2500 years ago, but which are lost on a modern reader?

I’m not so much saddened that someone thought to study the possible astronomical interpretation an ancient text, even if they didn’t do a very thorough job of it. At least that means they are interested in poetry, although I doubt they were joking as Babbage may have been.

What does sadden me, however, is the ludicrous hype generated by the University of Texas publicity machine. There’s far too much of that about, and it’s getting worse.



The Dream of Gerontius

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by telescoper

Just a quick lunchtime post to mention that I took yesterday (Sunday) evening off to attend a concert at the Brighton Dome which was part of the annual Brighton Festival. The perf0rmance consisted of just one piece: The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Edward Gardner) together with the Brighton Festival Chorus.

I happen to know a couple of people who sing with the Brighton Festival Chorus. Both were a bit nervous ahead of last night’s performance because it’s a challenging work and although they’ve been rehearsing the choral passages themselves, they only had a short time to practice together with the orchestra. Reading about the performance history of this work, their fears might have been justified: the first performance, in Birmingham in 1900, was a shambles, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time, and it took some time for it to become established in the repertoire. As it turned out, however, they had nothing to worry about. I thought the Chorus was magnificent, as was the Orchestra and indeed the three soloists: Alice Coote (Mezzo), Robert Murray (Tenor) and Matthew Rose (Bass). I particularly liked Matthew Rose’s performance. He cut an imposing figure on the platform, towering over the other musicians, and his sonorous bass tones projected wonderfully.

Although I began by saying that the concert was “just one piece”, The Dream of Gerontius is a very substantial work, lasting over 90 minutes (excluding the interval). It requires a large choir (well over a hundred voices last night) as well as large orchestral forces, including two harps and a big brass section. I’m sure it’s a handful to perform, but last night’s concert was well-controlled and at times simply beautiful.

It’s basically a setting of a long poem, describing the journey of a dying man towards death. It takes a very Roman-Catholic view of Paradise, Purgatory, and the Last Judgement and this may have contributed to its initial lack of popularity in (Protestant) England; it found greater favour in Germany in the years after its first performance.

I’m actually not the biggest fan of Elgar, generally speaking. He’s often very rhythmically unimaginative and predictable, as in the opening passage of Part 1 in last night’s performance which plodded along for a quite a while before getting going. However, there are some thrilling passages too. This work does sound surprisingly modern at times and at others is very reminiscent of Richard Strauss, at least to my ears.

Anyway, an excellent performance of a profound and challenging work. I’m glad to say that it attracted a full house too, though the majority of the audience were (like me) not in the first flush of youth..

P.S. I texted a friend that I was at The Dream of Gerontius, but autocorrect turned it into The Dream of Geronimo. As far as I know there’s no choral work with that title, but perhaps there should be!

R.I.P. John David Jackson (1925-2016)

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 23, 2016 by telescoper

Yet again I have to pass on some very sad news. Physicist John David Jackson, best known for his classic textbook Classical Electrodynamics, has passed away at the age of 91. I’m sure I speak for many physicists when I say that Classical Electrodynamics was not only an essential part of my physics education but also a constant companion throughout the rest of my career. I have consulted my copy regularly over the last thirty years. I was often frustrated that when I found the topic I was looking for in the index, it referred to a problem (usually a difficult one) rather than a solution, but there’s no question it made me a better physicist.


Rest in peace, John David Jackson (1925-2016).

I did my research. Yes, I think academic publishers are greedy. (With notes on publishers’ rhetoric and creationism)

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2016 by telescoper

As promised…

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

Another day, another puff-piece from academic publishers about how awesome they are. This time, the Publisher’s Association somehow suckered the Guardian into giving them a credible-looking platform for their party political broadcast, Think academic publishers are greedy? Do your research. I have to give the PA credit for coming up with about the most patronising title possible.

Yes, I did my research. Guess what? Academic publishers are greedy.


(The article doesn’t say it’s by the Publishers Association, by the way. It’s credited to Stephen Lotinga, who LinkedIn tells us is Chief Executive of The Publishers Assocation, but the article doesn’t declare that.)

Oh boy do I get tired of constantly rebutting the same old bs. from publishers. And it really is the same bs. They’re not even taking the trouble to invent new bs., just churning out the same nonsense each time — for example, equating their massive profits with investment in…

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